The Evening Hatch
I’m pretty sure someone has published a hatch guide for every river in America, if not the world. These can be tremendous resources for the angler, but they can also be a little misleading. Such guidelines give the impression that the angler will encounter specific insect hatches almost like clockwork, and all one has to do is show up at the river, with a pattern that matches the hatch, and fish will be caught. While that may be the case for some anglers on some rivers, in my opinion such information should be swallowed along with a couple grains of salt (followed perhaps by a shot of tequila and lemon). The Yakima allegedly boasts some tremendous seasonal hatches like other “blue ribbon” fisheries, but don’t let that lull you into thinking the hatch guide is a golden resource when it comes to catching fish. For those of few angling accomplishments, I offer a more realistic approach to the Yakima River hatch guide game:
January. Don’t go trout fishing this month. Stay home and tie some trout flies or read a good book about trout fishing. One will very likely freeze one’s posterior on the Yakima during January, and if anglers are going to subject themselves to this sort of personal misery and not catch fish, they had better at least be standing knee deep in a steelhead river. The Yakima may have some occasional midge hatches during January, but with numb fingers, good luck trying to tie on a size 22 Griffith’s Gnat to the tippet. Of course, the whitefishing can be hot when the water temps turn the real fish into troutcicles. You may even hook one in the mouth. I recommend a bare hook under a Thingamabobber, or maybe just the bare hook.
February/March. Skwalas. The emergence of these stoneflies is the first big event that draws anglers out of hibernation. Whenever I’ve tried to time this hatch I’ve been met with disappointment and wished I’d stayed in my cave. I’ve caught a couple fish on Skwala nymphs, but I’ve never been there on a day when the bugs seem to be hatching, so I can only live vicariously through those who’ve had the good fortune to actually engage the fish on Skwala dries. I’ve heard it can be fun because up to this point it’s pretty much a subsurface game since Fall. These stoneflies may start appearing in February, but beware of reports proclaiming as much. The nymphs might be moving around toward the end of February, but the adults probably won’t really be hatching until early March, and that’s only if the water temps warm up. But when anglers hear the word “Skwala”, they start thinking irrationally and may reach for their dry flies too early. More than anything, “Skwala” is merely a marketing ploy tossed about by fly shops and guides hoping to draw some customers out of winter hibernation. And who can blame them?
March/April. If you find yourself on the river on a day when Old Man Winter might have loosened his grip temporarily and long enough for the water temp to rise into the 40’s for a couple days, the adult Skwalas might actually make an appearance. Will you be there at the right time in the right place? If you’re like me, the answer is yes and no. Oh, I’ll be there alright – just not on the right day. I’ll have to take your word for it, but March Browns are said to begin emerging in March, which this is probably where they got their name. Just in case, I have a few patterns to match the emergence of these brown mayflies, but only once have I ever gotten the opportunity to actually use any of them. When I have stumbled upon a hatch of March Browns, the hatches came off for two hours at a time. There were bugs in the air and bugs on the water, but no fish looking up. So if you do encounter one of these hatches, prepare to be frustrated. To be completely honest, I did once stumble upon rising fish during a March Brown hatch the day before Easter. I got lucky– but only once, so it doesn’t count. Next up you have the Blue Winged Olives. Yeah, right. Whatever. BWO’s like cloudy days. The problem is whenever I fish the Yak in April, it’s under bluebird skies. That’s good for the pasty white skin of winter, but not so much for bringing out the little olive colored mayflies.
May. Salmonflies. When they’re hatching on rivers across the west, these bugs attract anglers like flies to rotting meat. I’ve never actually seen a Salmonfly on the Yakima, which doesn’t mean they aren’t there – they’re just not there when I’ve been there. And honestly I don’t think they’re abundantly established yet. Occasionally an angler (usually a guide) will proclaim of having seen an actual adult Salmonfly on the Yakima. Not me, though I have caught plenty of salmon fries. That’s really annoying because one can be literally harassed by a pod of these baby Chinook and the only way to put an end to the madness is to pull up anchor and move downstream. Admittedly I don’t usually get to fish much in May because it’s a very busy month, what with Mother’s Day and all. Unfortunately my mom isn’t around any more for me to dode over, but I do have the pleasure of honoring the mother of my children. Another reason I don’t fish much this month is because I’m usually saving up my hall passes for my Memorial Day Weekend trip to Yellowstone with Marck. But the biggest hatch this month is the The Mother’s Day Caddis. It is reputed to be one of biblical proportions. It has also been the biggest disappointment for me. I hear tales of a hatch so prolific that anglers actually forget to honor their mothers on this day and go fishing instead. The problem with this hatch is that the runoff usually fouls the river and you’d never know if the hatch came or went. Marck happened to time this hatch perfectly this year, and sent me a text message that simply said: “Epic hatch.” Our followup conversation after his trip revealed that there were so many hundreds of thousands of bugs in the air and on the water that the natural competition proved too great. Fish were rising, but the water was high and dirty and hookups were few. Fishing was frustrating. If you do visit the Yakima hoping to encounter the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch, I suggest taking flowers and a card and leaving your fly rod in the car. You’ll probably catch just as many fish that way.
June. Runoff is usually done with, but the flows are kept artificially high as the irrigation in the Yakima Valley begins. Pale Morning Duns and Golden Stones are hatching. OK, I must confess I witnessed a PMD hatch once. I was eating my lunch on the riverbank, sulking over how slow fishing had been all morning. Then I heard trout rising. Then I saw trout rising not 20 feet from where I sulked. I tossed out a cast and caught a small fish. Then it happened again. Then as quickly as the feeding had begun, it ended. Woo-hoo! Two fish! Golden Stones? They must only exist at the end of a rainbow, and I must always be at the wrong end. They are said to be present this month – I’ve read as much on the fishing reports posted by the fly shops in the area.
July. Hopper time. OK, it’s not a hatch, per se. Throw something big and ugly that resembles a foam mutant from a nuclear waste site and you might catch a couple fish before you succomb to heat stroke. Hopper fishing is not exactly technical fishing, and builds sloppy presentation skills which make me feel right at home. Slap that big ugly bug up against the bank- as in hit the bank because the fish are so fat and lazy from eating well that they won’t move two inches out of their way to take your fly. Keep a watchful eye out for the rubber hatch, which is epic in proportions this month. You’ll see things that you won’t soon forget as well as many things you wish you could. If you’ve made it through the day and find yourself on the water toward dusk the evening caddis hatch can be great. I’ve watched Marck slay the trout on Elk Hair Caddis when the light grows dim. What I’ve found most of the time is that the fish don’t really start rising until it’s way too dark to see the fly on the water, which makes setting the hook difficult. And God forbid you should lose a fly and have to tie on another under the cloak of increasing darkness – especially the typical Elk Hair Caddis. The way the hackle is swept forward over the eye of the hook makes it difficult to thread one’s tippet even in good light with good eyesight. Remove both of those from the equation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. To fully appreciate just how many caddisflies come out at night, perform this little experiment: As you are breaking down your rods and stowing your gear, leave the car door open so the dome light illuminates the dark summer night. Caddis are attracted to light.
August. Copy and paste the month of July here, then add the following: Toward the end of the month when the river starts to drop, hoppers become less effective and it’s time to key in on Short Wing Stoneflies. I can’t say I’ve ever seen one, although I can say that I’ve fished with a stonefly pattern late in the month and been skunked. As the month begins the rubber hatch is still in full swing and the general rule is that quality does not increase as the summer drones on. By now the fish have seen every pattern drift overhead way and anglers have seen everything imaginable float past them on the river as well. At least as the river drops the rubber hatch tapers off and anglers don’t have to halt their back casts so often to avoid hooking a non-game species. While casting gets easier the fishing, however, does not. The last time I fished the Yakima in late August we didn’t rise a fish to a dry fly all day. One should not have to nymph this time of year, but we did. I don’t want to talk about it.
September. The great flip-flop of the Yak is well underway, meaning the irrigation flows are cut off and the river drops to more natural late summer flows. Again, the Shortwing Stones are said to abound, but I don’t know that I would recognize one if it landed on my nose. The fishing gets more challenging as tippets and flies get smaller. Gee, I didn’t realize the fishing prior to this had been easy? Well, it just gets damn tough in September, and those sloppy presentations that worked for hopper fishing will come back to haunt you now. Water clarity increases, feeding lanes are defined in the lowering flows, and the fish lurking therein are watching to make sure your presentation is perfect. Baetis is the name, and loathing is the game: Get it right, or go home. This is not the time of year to go searching for an ego boost from the fish. You might start to see some October Caddis, but being September it would seem wrong to refer to them as October Caddis. They’re big and orange, from what I’m told. I’ve only ever caught one fish on a September Caddis pattern, and it was the only fish I caught after a very long day. And the fish wasn’t much bigger than the fly I was using.
October. The September Caddis become October Caddis this month, and some anglers love the Yakima in October. Myself, I’m so emotionally bruised and battered by this time of year that take a timeout from the Yakima to heal my wounds. I’m usually chasing some sort of game with a firearm in October, or seeking some inland steelhead on rivers elsewhere, so I really don’t have a clue what Oktoberfest is like on the Yak. Go for it if you want.
November. Winter can hit hard at any moment during this month, but if you want to nymph for increasingly more catatonic trout before the Yak turns into a literal Ice Princess, give it a go. Take nymphs. Lots of them. Conveniently December is just around the corner and you can ask Santa for a bunch of flies to replace those you sacrificed to the river gods. Ask for some tippet spools, tapered leaders and strike indicators while you’re at it.
December. Never fished the Yak during December, so I can’t be of much help to you there. If you like getting coal in your stocking on Christmas morning, you may like fishing the Yakima in December.
Now that you have an alternative perspective to the hatches of the Yakima River, who you gonna believe- me, or them?
First, a quick vocabulary lesson for non anglers: “backing” is the term for the high strength “string” that is the first attached to the spool of one’s fly reel. Anywhere from 100 to 200 yards of this usually Dacron-based material is typically used, and to that backing is tied the actual fly line. Think of backing as insurance in the event that the angler hooks into a big solid fish that runs long and pulls hard. Fly line is usually 90 to 100 feet long, and a strong fish in a strong current can easily strip that amount of line from the reel. Once that length of line is gone, then what? It’s an unthinkable scenario that would surely involve a broken leader and a lost fish, because when a fish makes a run often one’s only recourse is to give it more line. When that line runs out, chances are something is going to break. And so backing is affixed to the reel to give the angler additional yardage to play a big fish. On lighter setups for fish such as modest sized trout, the backing may not be necessary but it fills up the reel and helps to eliminate fly line “memory”, which can occur when the line is coiled too tightly and retains less-than-perfectly straight form when laid out on the water. Backing can be used, in this case, simply take up space on the reel, and that’s typically the reason why I use backing on my trout reels. With my keen angling skills, I certainly don’t need even the full length of fly line to play the 8 inch trout I typically catch. But to witness one’s backing emerge from the reel because of a large, hot fish should be considered a good thing, and anglers long for the occasion to proclaim, “That fish took me into my backing!” Lesson complete.
Until recently I’d never had the good fortune of seeing enough line stripped from one of my trout reels to see the backing. By “see”, I mean to have the entire fly line taken out to the point where the backing presents itself as the last bastion of safety. That all changed recently when I was fishing the Yakima River with Marck and Jimmy, out of the vessel known as The Hornet (sifting through the archives will reveal this as Marck’s Clackacraft 16 LP). We had just commenced a float that would take us from Mile Marker 20 to Squaw Creek (for the more PC inclined, this is Lmuma Creek). It was a stellar day toward the end of the 3rd week of March: skies were blue, the large yellow orb in the sky shone brightly, and water temps were headed toward the mid 40’s. The Skwala stoneflies had been showing themselves sporadically for a couple of weeks, and we anticipated a hatch later in the day. We were, however, seasoned enough to know that subsurface fishing early in the day would be the name of the game, until a specified time when the Skwalas would start coming off. At 1:30 PM, according to reports from The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg, we should start to encounter Skwalas and fish feeding on the big bugs. The day held much promise, and I strung up my 4 weight Sage Z-Axis with a dry fly combination of a Skwala pattern with a small mayfly emerger as my dropper. My 6 weight Sage XP was designated for streamer duty, and I selected a particularly delightful looking fly that resembled a small sculpin and affixed it to the end of my sink tip line. Marck would be nymphing and Jimmy would try the dry fly thing right off the bat, but I wanted to fish down in the slower deep pools and invoke the strike of a large meat eating trout. It seemed like a good game plan to cover all our bases and determine which method of angling would work most effectively. I love fishing a streamer because it involves active participation on the part of the angler, unlike nymphing which is, well, never mind…how easily I relapse into bashing the way of the nymph (call it a growing pain).
Fifteen minutes into our float I was stripping my streamer through a moderately fast/relatively slow current. Ahead of my fly I noted a large rock protruding above the water, but felt confident my fly would evade the rock, so there was no cause for alarm or evasive maneuvering. Suddenly my line went tight, and held fast. It appeared to be anchored on the rock, and as we drifted steadily onward, more and more distance was placed between the rock and reel. Darn it. As would any angler, I pointed the tip of my rod directly at the source of the stuck fly, and increased the pressure of my index finger on the fly line. When nothing happened and my finger began to overheat, I increased the drag on my reel. Surely now the leader would snap, and the worst that would happen would be that I’d lose a $2.50 fly. But when nothing broke, I applied more pressure to the line. Crap. Still no breakage – damn the heavy 2X tapered leader I’d selected, and why did my usually questionable knots have to hold now? Soon the yellow fly line played out and my backing appeared. I applied more pressure. Nothing. Shit. “Hey, uh– Marck? I said with a waivering tone to my voice, “Can you pull over and drop anchor?” I was worried now, because 40 yards of backing had fled from my spool, and I didn’t want to risk smoking the drag on my reel trying to put the breaks on a drift boat carrying 3 guys in a steady current (although had that worked it would have been worthy of a product testimonial for Ross Reels, manufacturer of the Vexsis model I had mounted on my rod). Marck steered The Hornet toward the bank and dropped anchor.
The shoreline was steep and rocky, and footing was precarious as I made my way upstream toward the rock which held my fly. I reeled in slack line as I proceeded, and that was when I realized just how much line had been removed from my reel. The highway was but a very short distance above me and as I picked my way along the rocks I hoped that a speeding vehicle wouldn’t crash through the guardrail, or toss some sort of refuse from an open window. Standing on the shoreline adjacent to the rock, I carefully surveyed the situation: the rock was about 30 feet from the bank, occupying heavy water that was 3 feet deep and moving with some degree of force. Large rocks lay strewn upon the bottom of the river, and they all bore a coating of slippery slime. It was going to require some careful wading, and the last thing I wanted was to take a swim in the cold water – that would surely put a damper on the rest of the day. As I inched my way toward the rock, I noticed a peculiar stench in the air. No, I was not smelling another skunk, but rather an odor that is similarly unpleasant. Decomposing flesh has an unmistakable odor which I recognized immediately, and with each carefully placed step toward the rock that stench grew thicker until I realized there was more to the rock than just basalt. The partially decayed carcass of a deer lay pinned against the rock, held fast by the strong current of the river. My fly was not stuck on the rock, per se, but rather it was buried under the hide of the rotting carcass that was stuck to the rock. As I stood next to the rotting corpse, hip deep in a heavy current that was making every attempt to knock me off my feet, I pause for a moment to reflect on the situation. It was so ridiculous that I smiled and laughed at the fact that this sort of thing could only happen to me. In many ways it was a perfect moment.
How the carcass got to be where it was isn’t such a hard thing to imagine. The Yakima Canyon teems with wildlife, and undoubtedly the deer was headed to the river for a drink, crossing the highway as darkness fell. A car rounding the bend very likely made high speed contact with the animal, which would have been wearing the old “deer in the headlights” expression right before the impact sent it cascading over the guardrail into the river. From there the current would have swept the deceased critter downstream until it became hung up on the rock, where my fly found it.
Thankful for having flattened the barb on the hook, I quickly removed the fly from the hide of the dead deer and made my way back toward the shoreline. Marck was watching from nearby, and although he claims to have been standing at the ready to rescue me had I required assistance, no doubt he was greatly amused by the whole thing. I made it to the shoreline without incident, and once there I inspected the hook for damage. Other than the bend of the hook having become slightly less bent during my tug-of war with the rock carcass, all seemed to be in good order. I removed a bit of flesh that had become lodged in the hook during the ordeal, as I did not want to be accused of fishing illegally with bait. Then I used my pliers to put the bend back in the hook and we were on our way downstream once again.
Had the whole rock carcass incident not taken place, the day would have yielded very little to write about. The weather was great and we all added a bit of color to the pasty skin of winter.
Winds were light and made for an enjoyable day of casting. Jimmy managed a beautiful 3 inch Chinook fry on the dry and Marck added an 8 inch rainbow to his catch record. The honor of being skunked was reserved for me, although I did have one nice trout take a shot at my dry fly late in the day. Surprisingly I missed the hook set.
We saw no fish rising all day, but kept our hopes up that with each bend in the river our fotrunes would change. At one point we anchored up in a particularly fishy section of water to enjoy the sun and some sandwiches. While we ate our lunch the fish seemed disinterested in doing the same, completely ignoring the Caddis and March Browns that were hatching all around us. It was quite an insect buffet, and why the fish never showed up for the feast remains a mystery.
We saw a total of 4 adult Skwalas all day long, and on one occasion actually observed a fish rise and miss a shot at one of the big stoneflies, proving that fish don’t just miss the take synthetic imitations. Seeing this play out in real life drama caused me to feel a little better about my angling skills.
Overall it was a stellar day spent fishing, although the catching left much to be desired, and we were dumfounded as to the lack of Skwalas hatching and fishing rising. But that’s fishing, and the scars left by a lackluster day will soon heal themselves. The scar left by a large rock on the hull of The Hornet, however, will not heal itself and some fiberglass repair is in order. Sorry, Marck– it was Jimmy’s fault.